Religion in Society

When the religious right feared lightning rods

| by Jerome McCollom

This was a comment by an individual in a newspaper, on how two-hundred plus years ago, the religious feared lightning rods. Why did they fear them? Well, because they were supposedly an affront to their deity punishing human beings. Even the Pat Robertsons of the world, who blame every natural disaster on gays, atheists and feminists, don't believe in that drivel anymore. As a progressive writer, some might wonder about my focus upon the religious right. It's simple, they are still very powerful in America. indeed, they control the South of the U.S., politically. He writes:


"Protestant and Catholic churches, basing their teachings on various texts in the Bible, taught that the air was filled with devils, demons and witches....Christian churches tried to ward off the damaging effects of storms and lightning by saying prayers, consecrating church bells, sprinkling holy water and burning witches....

...Unfortunately, these efforts were to no avail. The priest ought to have prayed for the bell ringer, who was frequently electrocuted while ringing the blessed bells. The church tower, usually the highest structure in the village or town, was the building most often hit, while the brothels and gambling houses next door were left untouched...

The first major blow against these biblical superstitions about storms and lightning was struck in 1752 when Benjamin Franklin made his famous electrical experiments with a kite. The second and fatal blow was struck later in the same year when he invented the lightning rod. With Franklin's scientific explanations of lightning, the question that had so long taxed the minds of the world's leading theologians-"Why should the Almighty strike his own consecrated temples, or suffer Satan to strike them"-could finally be answered rationally.

Thunder and lightning were considered tokens of God's displeasure. It was considered impious to prevent their doing damage. This was despite the fact that in Germany, within a span of 33 years, nearly 400 towers were damaged and 120 bell ringers were killed.

In Switzerland, France and Italy, popular prejudice against the lightning rod was ignited and fueled by the churches and resulted in the tearing down of lightning rods from many homes and buildings, including one from the Institute of Bologna, the leading scientific institution in Italy. The Swiss chemist, M. de Saussure, removed a rod he had erected on his house in Geneva in 1771 when it caused his neighbors so much anxiety that he feared a riot.

In 1780-1784, a lawsuit about lightning rods gave M. de St. Omer the right to have a lightning rod on top of his house despite the religious objections of his neighbors. This victory established the fame of the lawyer in the case, young Robespierre.

In America, Rev. Thomas Prince, pastor of Old South Church, blamed Franklin's invention of the lightning rod for causing the Massachusetts earthquake of 1755.

In Prince's sermon on the topic, he expressed the opinion that the frequency of earthquakes may be due to the erection of "points invented by the sagacious Mr. Franklin." He goes on to argue that "in Boston more are erected than anywhere else in New England, and Boston seems to be more dreadfully shaken. Oh! There is no getting out of the mighty hand of God."

It took many years for scientists to convince the priests to attach a lightning rod to the spire of St. Bride's Church in London, even though it had been destroyed by lightning several times.

The priests' refusals prompted the following letter from the president of Harvard University to Franklin: "How astonishing is the force of prejudice even in an age of so much knowledge and free inquiry. It is amazing to me, that after the full demonstration you have given . . . they should even think of repairing that steeple without such conductors."

In Austria, the Church of Rosenburg was struck so frequently and with such loss of life that the peasants feared to attend services. Several times the spire had to be rebuilt. It was not until 1778, 26 years after Franklin's discovery, that church authorities finally permitted a rod to be attached. Then all trouble ceased.

The item closes, "Christian Churches were finally obliged to confess [the lightning rod's] practicality. The few theologians who stuck to the old theories and fumed against Franklin's attempts to 'control the artillery of heaven' were finally silenced, like the lightning, by Franklin's lighting rod and the supremacy of the scientific method."